Dissonant Notes

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nationalism, 'Braveheart', and the Scottish Independence Debate

When asked for his opinion on Scottish independence in a recent Daily Record interview, Bobby Gillespie, lead singer with Primal Scream, stated:

“We can’t be nationalistic about it. Nationalism has never done it for me. It leads to fascism.”

Gillespie is seen by some poor souls as a political firebrand but his thinking in regards to nationalism is predictably thoughtless. More disappointing are the opinions of comedian Billy Connolly, who dismissed the Scottish Parliament as a “wee pretendy parliament” and went on to say:

“I hate nationalism. If you look at the history of nationalism, you will find the history of war and horror.”

To be fair to Connolly, he has since refused to have anything to do with the No campaign and publicly stated that he will happily endorse whatever decision Scottish voters decide to make. The main purpose in quoting him was to highlight a disturbingly commonplace view in regards to nationalism that exists in the UK. This view paints nationalism as a fascistic, anachronistic, and dangerous philosophy. The reason why is because nationalism is consistently equated with Hitler and the Nazi Party. All other instances of nationalism are forgotten and, without fail, the Nazi Party are wheeled out. What this viewpoint fails to do is separate the race-based nationalism of the Nazi Party from the modern civic nationalism of the SNP. What it also fails to do is recognise that more often than not nationalism is the end result of war and colonialism, not the cause.

The modern nation-state is a relatively young creation. In Europe, there is a tendency to confuse tribal groupings and early administrative regions with nation-states. The modern German nation came into existence in 1871, but people talk of Germany as if it has existed since time immemorial because of the existence of Germanic tribes and the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Italy was born in 1861. These modern nation-states came into being as a result of people joining together for the common cause of establishing sovereignty after suffering domination under a foreign overlord. Again and again nationalism was forged under the anvil of an outside threat. The great irony of the current Scottish independence debate is that, by scorning Scottish nationalism, voters are passively throwing their hat in with perhaps the most murderous and destructive nationalism in the history of the modern era: British nationalism.

When Winston Churchill said "It makes me sick when I hear the Secretary Of State say of India, 'She will do this,' and 'She will do that.' India is an abstraction.... India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator”, he failed to notice the great irony in his statement. The British Empire created Indian nationalism by attempting to subdue and rule the people in the geographical region known as India. Indians united against the British Raj. Irish nationalism was the result of British rule. America was born as an act of resistance against Britain. Nationalism has always been a bulwark against oppression. Is it any wonder that so many in Britain speak derisively of nationalism (unless it is the unspoken but always superior British kind)? Nationalism destroyed the British Empire. Nationalism broke up the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Nationalism is now threatening the very notion of the United Kingdom.

So when does nationalism become toxic? When it becomes race-based. The Germanic nationalism that flourished under Hitler was a perfect example of tribalism and race-based nationalism (and a culmination of centuries of European anti-semitism). The relationship between race-based nationalism and civic nationalism is as close as the relationship between a totalitarian state and a modern liberal democracy. Anyone using Stalinist Russia to dismiss any and all forms of government would rightfully be dismissed. Yet those who invoke Hitler at the mere mention of nationalism are given an audience. British nationalism, with its barely concealed white supremacy and history of oppression, war, and colonialism, is closer in spirit to Hitler than Scottish nationalism. The only reason the British Empire faltered was because oppressed people fought back. Britain did not recede out of some innate sense of decency and fair play; it was beaten back by rising tides of nationalism.

With that in mind, is Scottish nationalism race-based? Absolutely not. When Scottish author William McIlvanney gave a speech in 1992 before a crowd of Scottish nationalists he famously stated “Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition”. The response was cheering and applause from the listeners -- hardly the Beer Hall Putsch. Being Scottish does not mean being Celtic. Yes, ancient Scotland was created by a uniting of Scots and Picts, but for a true picture of Scottish genetics you have to throw in a bit of Danish, some Norwegian, some Anglo-Saxon, and some Norman. For a more modern view, add a lot of Irish, some Italian, some Lithuanian, some Polish, some Jewish, some Pakistani, some Chinese, some Indian, some African, some Caribbean, and a lot of English. In truth, you are more likely to hear complaints about too many immigrants from Unionists rather than Scottish nationalists. These same Unionists claim that Scottish nationalism is anti-English, while at the same time denying that a sizable aspect of Scottish society is anti-Irish. Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Scotland does not have problems with racism, but it is a fact that extremist parties like the UKIP have no foothold in Scotland, and any people that do support them are much more likely to be waving a Union Jack than a Saltire.

British nationalism is also dangerous because when it looks in the mirror it does not recognise its own reflection. Despite invading the vast majority of the globe, many Brits seem to think that British nationalism does not exist. There is a notion that British identity is merely an evolved point that all will reach when they outgrow such squalid notions as nationalism and race. Scots who speak of rejecting independence by rejecting Scottish nationalism clearly agree with such a notion, but what they fail to acknowledge is that choosing British nationalism means siding with a more powerful nationalism, siding with a nationalism that is built on an inherent sense of superiority, and siding with a nationalism which includes a lot more dangerous race-based thinking.

When Margaret Thatcher made her famous statement “There is no such thing as society” she was essentially saying that a people should not look to a government for help. Her philosophy was that government protected private property and the free market and everyone else was on their own. This same philosophy was contradicted by the power she wielded while Prime Minister. She wanted to wean Brits from welfare while, at the same time, using the power of government to intentionally put thousands out of a job. The influence, wealth, and property of the British aristocracy was protected. The privileges of the Royal Family remained in place. The poor had to make do. Her larger context was that the individual was the only true agent in society. Neighbourhoods, communities, counties, regions, and nations were merely historical accidents. While Conservatives endorsed this philosophy in principle, they did so draped in a Union Jack. Mutterings about the French and the Germans and the EU were made with the implication being that Britain was superior because it had moved beyond nationalism. Britain must be Great again by telling mainland Europe to mind its own business and let Brits run their own country. This viewpoint was not seen as dangerous nationalism. Yet, when the SNP makes gains in Scotland on a philosophy of civic nationalism, they are routinely compared to Nazis (and accused of being bullies).

The end of nationalism would be convenient for neo-liberal proponents of globalisation who wish to make every citizen of earth forget their communal and national ties and become wealth-seeking individuals. Communities and nations with a strong bond threaten the entire notion of globalisation. With these thoughts in mind, the tendency to equate Scottish nationalism with German nationalism of the Third Reich becomes more sinister. Scottish independence will apparently leave Scotland less protected from a military standpoint. So a philosophy of less militarism is analogous with Nazi Germany? The SNP supports a more open immigration policy, the exact opposite of Nazi Germany. Let us have no more talk of nationalism meaning fascism. It is an empty argument from people who do not even believe what they are saying. It would be an insult to compare Indian nationalism to Nazi Germany. Attempts to tar Scottish nationalists with the same brush should be met with contempt.

The other charge laid at the feet of nationalism is its anachronistic and emotive nature. Critics of Scottish independence constantly invoke Braveheart, that Hollywood travesty based on the life of Scottish folk hero William Wallace. It isn’t going too far to say that it is an obsession for many No supporters. Scottish (not British) nationalism is seen as not only highly fascistic but also childish and sentimental. The main problem with this argument is how completely and utterly false it is. The Yes campaign has appealed to voters on any number of issues, from democratic to economic ones, yet to many No supporters the Yes campaign is fueled by Braveheart-derived sentiments. This is nothing but a cheap ploy that seeks to undermine calls for real democratic maturity. It attempts to paint nationalism as a thing of the past instead of a modern development. The fact that Scotland was one of the earliest European nations to declare itself independent (after uniting against English invaders) should not fool anyone into thinking that nationalism is a despicable trait to be left behind. On the contrary, nationalism is a stage all modern nation-states must pass through.

Scottish nationalism fell by the wayside after Scotland came under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. The energies released by the Union with England in 1707 produced the Scottish Enlightenment, but soon after Scotland found itself bereft of a sense of culture. Walter Scott looked to the romance of the highlands in order to drape Scotland with tartan and, while this provided Scotland with an identity distinct from England, Scottish writers and artists after Sir Walter found themselves ignored or marginalised. Irish writer John Millington Synge wrote that one the weaknesses in the writings of Goethe was that he had “no national and intellectual mood to interpret”. This same criticism could be made of Scottish writing after the Scottish Enlightenment had become a memory. Celebrated British novels tended to be English, and it could be argued that Scotland did not produce a Joyce or a Yeats as no national mood existed. While Scottish businessmen used their British identity to get a leg up in the colonies, Scottish culture suffered under the Union. The Scottish people were British in a legal sense, but they could never be representative of Britain. Only the English could be truly British. Scotland has still not fully entered a mature phase of nationalism. It had marched proudly through the door and then promptly got lost as Britishness became a byword for Englishness and Scottishness sat dutifully on the sidelines. It is no coincidence Scottish writing started to regain much of its vitality in the early to mid-20th century as a national mood grew and Scottish identity slowly reconstructed itself.

Those who reject Scottish nationalism must accept that, in doing so, they endorse British nationalism. They are not rejecting nationalism. They are in fact pledging allegiance to one of the most divisive, destructive, and power hungry forms of nationalism ever set loose on the earth. To claim that British nationalism is a thing of the past is to ignore the rise of the UKIP, whose anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalist stance has more than a whiff of race-based nationalism. A strong post-Empire English/British national identity free from triumphalism has yet to materialise. In contrast, the Scottish nationalist agenda is free from race-based thinking. It has produced no calls for less immigration or for the defunding of multicultural programs. On the contrary, Scottish nationalism has an internationalist feel. At heart it is a call for civic nationalism, a demand for true democracy, and a chance for Scotland to break away from a two-party system which has nothing to lose by ignoring Scottish voters. Scottish nationalism has grown according to the desires of Scottish voters and, as such, its spirit is democratic. There are undoubtedly many credible reasons for voting No in September, but a dislike of nationalism is not one of them. As long as Scottish nationalism is viewed as childish or, worse, fascistic, then a fog of misunderstanding will drift through the independence debate. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a vote for Scottish independence is an act of atavistic desperation. The opposite is actually true. A Yes vote has the potential be the most radical, the most democratic, and the most vital vote that you have ever cast.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

An Axe for Judas: Bob Dylan and the Obsolescence of Pete Seeger

The recent passing of folk singer Pete Seeger provoked a sizable amount of reaction on the internet and beyond. The general consensus was that Pete Seeger was a man of substance, a man of integrity, a man willing to take a stand and to fight for what he believed in. What nobody wanted to mention was that, by the time he died, Pete Seeger was almost completely irrelevant. The reasons for his irrelevance can be traced back to the schism which erupted in 1965 when Bob Dylan abandoned folk music. Dylan’s decision to embrace rock music left folk looking like a puritan cult for the morally self-righteous. Folk music meant rules, rock music meant freedom. Pete Seeger remained on the side of folk and in doing so he was left behind by the emerging counter-culture and left looking like the spokesman for an age whose time had come and gone.

When Pete Seeger began his long career, American folk music was very much connected with political radicalism and civil rights. Seeger himself was a pacifist, a socialist, and a union supporter. All the strands of American political activism came together under the banner of folk music. Folk songs were the songs of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised. Folk music had a strong moral voice which questioned and harried the American establishment while pushing for change and equality. By the early 1960s the folk music revival was in full swing and Seeger was an active voice in the movement. It was into this arena that Bob Dylan stepped. Initially, Dylan’s songwriting was in tune with folk music’s moral voice. Soon enough, however, Dylan began to tire of folk music and in 1965 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival with a full electric band. The legend states that Seeger, who was present for Dylan’s performance, made a quip about wanting to take an axe to the electric cables. Dylan was stung by Seeger’s criticisms. To make matters worse Dylan was called Judas by an angry fan when playing a show in England. The jibe was generally interpreted as an angry response from a folk purist who was frustrated by Dylan’s choice to play with a full electric band. 

Dylan’s decision to go electric, and the angry response from some folk fans, rendered the folk protest movement obsolete.. Suddenly folk purists were seen as behind the times and overtly traditional. Pete Seeger was almost overnight viewed as a dinosaur, a leftover from some unenlightened era where people were hung up about politics and race. The new individual that Dylan represented viewed such political shenanigans as a drag. It would be wrong to say that all political radicalism immediately disappeared. Clearly there were massive protests against Vietnam and it was not unusual for counter-culture figures to have run-ins with the police. Yet Dylan’s individualism gradually replaced political agitation. Suddenly it was about being yourself, finding yourself, and not being caged by any ideologies or societal constructs. While the blues was created as a result of white supremacy and manufactured exclusion and poverty, the new individual said that it wasn’t about race, that anyone could play the blues. The end result was blues music being dominated by middle-class white males. While country and folk was the product of poverty and was mostly played by the white working class, the new individual said that class didn’t matter, as long as you had soul. The end result was country and folk being dominated by middle-class white males. Staggeringly privileged individuals like Gram Parsons and Townes Van Zandt became legendary as America’s middle-class took on the mannerisms of the poor while liberating the music from any buzz kill associations with politics. The new individual sang about heartbreak, sadness, and problems with alcohol. The universalism of the topics showed that these individuals had transcended race and class and were singing songs for the ages. The fact that modern Americana music is dominated by white middle-class males should give us all pause for thought about what has actually been transcended.

Dylan stripped folk music of its radical roots and made it safe for the bourgeois by turning art into a Rorschach test. People could take whatever they wanted from Dylan songs. In this new world of art, politics had no place. Other than vague protestations about the whole damn system being corrupt, politics was too spiky, too defined, and too bothersome for the new individual. Falling back on American libertarian traditions, the new individual just wanted to be left alone to take whatever they wanted from the music they listened to. Pete Seeger had no place in the world of the new individual unless he was viewed as a big cuddly grandad who sang ‘Kumbaya’ beside the campfire. He can be admired from a certain distance, but get too close and you’ll start to notice that he was a committed socialist, and that kind of thinking gets people uncomfortable. The moment Dylan went electric and abandoned social protest for cryptic and absurd lyricism the world moved with him, leaving Pete Seeger on the sidelines looking like a remnant from some bygone age. Seeger carried on regardless and stayed productive and political up to his last days while Dylan’s newfound approach soon floundered. It became apparent that after the initial rush of freedom that Dylan felt after abandoning folk and going electric he really had nothing to say. Despite occasional flickers, Dylan’s lyricism has never scaled the heights of his early 1960’s work and nobody seems to mind. He is still treated like a genius and, worse still, his music is approached as if the lyrics have moral substance. Dylan and his fans see no problem with lamenting the pitfalls of modern life one minute and then appearing in an underwear commercial the next. His actions are shrugged off as if to question them is foolish. This is Bob Dylan. He can do whatever he wants. The new individual is answerable to no one.

Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger represented two very different approaches to life and art. When we chose Dylan over Seeger we opted for an eternal adolescence free from constraints, responsibilities, or commitments. We grounded our idea of individuality on bourgeois notions of self that demanded we forget any aspect of ourselves that might lead to tension or engagement. Race, class, gender, and sexuality were just labels, man, and if we wanted to be free we had to forget those things (of course the unspoken part was that affluent straight white males were already free and everyone else needed to catch up and evolve). We chose Dylan over Seeger and as such we got the neutered, depoliticised art that we deserved. The more obsolete Pete Seeger became, the safer it was to praise him. He came across as a warm and fuzzy grandparent, not a firebrand political radical. With the advent of his death, he can now be lionized for possessing qualities which are almost completely absent from folk, country, or bluegrass. Post 1965 Dylan gave us the vague, politically blank music that was demanded by middle-class suburbanites hell bent on defining individuality as something which lacked, rather than possessed, notable characteristics. The fact that many see Dylan as some kind of heir to Seeger rather than a break from the folk tradition that Seeger stayed loyal to shows how confused our understanding of folk music really is. Dylan used the moral force (and the melodies) of folk music to create his reputation only to abandon it when the movement he hitched a ride on demanded more from him than he was willing to give. Pete Seeger ended his days relatively obscure but defiantly unchanged. Dylan has become a highly paid car salesman. Seeger lost his relevance but kept his dignity. Dylan betrayed everything his early work stood for, yet in doing so he helped create the conditions which allowed him to escape censure. The new individual lives free from repercussions and we do Pete Seeger a disservice to imagine that what he believed in was in any way similar to what Dylan believes in.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ignorant Fantasies | Race and Class Delusions From David Thomas

Whenever discussions about authenticity crop up, which they often do, the urge to debunk is strong. Artists claiming ‘street’ credibility are subject to scrutiny and ridicule. While this is a healthy approach in general (one should always be on the lookout for spurious claims of authenticity) it has led to the assumption that almost all great art is ultimately made by the middle-classes. David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, sums up this attitude neatly in an interview conducted by Simon Reynolds. In the interview, available in Reynolds’ book Totally Wired, Thomas makes the claim that all adventurous art is middle-class in origin.

"This is the strength of our upbringing. This is why all adventurous art is done by middle-class people. Because middle-class people don’t care. “I’m going to do what I want, because I can do something else better and make more money than this.” If you sit down and make a list of the people you consider to be adventurous in pop music, I’d bet you lots that the vast majority of them are middle-class."

When Reynolds mentions The Beatles, Thomas scoffs:

"Do you really think The Beatles were working-class? Really? The Beatles were not working-class."

Now, the last thing I want to do is talk about The Beatles. Yet I find it interesting that it is now an accepted ‘fact’ that The Beatles were middle-class. The proof of this claim seems to rest on the fact that, after his working-class parents abandoned him, a caring Aunt with middle-class aspirations brought John Lennon up in a relatively well-to-do Liverpool suburb. He did not attend private school. His education was no different from other working-class children. All the other Beatles came from stalwart working-class backgrounds. Ringo’s household was certainly the worst-off but, in regards to the other Beatles, working-class does not mean destitute. It means working people with no means of income other than selling their labour. Yet somehow, over the course of time, The Beatles became middle-class. This reeks of class appropriation and class prejudice. Apparently thousands of people cannot accept the fact that a group as inventive and adventurous as The Beatles were working-class. David Thomas repeats this illegitimate claim with no evidence. He believes it, other people believe it, and therefore it is the truth. Typical middle-class thinking.

It surely does not need pointing out that almost every adventurous musical innovation of the 20th Century came from working-class origins. The blues, jazz, country, rock’n'roll, soul, reggae, disco, r&b, hip-hop, techno, house; the list goes on. It would take a mixture of ignorance and arrogance on a monumental scale to appropriate all of these innovations for the middle-classes. David Thomas certainly fits this criteria. After claiming all adventurous art comes from the middle-classes, he then claims that only Americans are fit to play rock’n'roll, and people from other countries have no business playing it.

"Nobody would in their right mind argue that an English band could play African tribal music as well as African tribal people. So where do you get this idea that English people can play rock music – the folk music of America – in any authentic way?"

He then goes on to quote Russian music critic Artemis Trotsky who said:

"The most ordinary amateur garage band in America has more authenticity and fire and soul than the most adventurous band from England, because they’re playing the music of their blood."

Thomas endorses this claim by saying:

"In any bar in America you can find ordinary musicians playing rock music of such high quality that it puts to shame stuff from other countries. That’s because it’s in their blood."

This little fantasy ignores one very salient fact; the vast majority of white Americans in 1960 had no idea about America’s musical heritage because it was music made by African-Americans and working-class whites. There’s a reason the average bar in America in 1960 did not shake with rock music, the reason being that, even after the advent of Elvis, listening to music made by black people was still frowned upon. Suburban teens learned of America’s rich musical heritage from the writing credits on Rolling Stones’ albums, not because it was in their blood. If it had not been for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks and Them, all groups who worshiped black American musicians, then middle-class Americans would have remained ignorant of the music of their blood. It was a well-known fact that blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would play to packed houses in Britain, be treated like royalty and have nervous young Brits hanging on their every word, and then return to segregated America and play to half-empty bar rooms.

The truth is, while British bands were playing Chuck Berry, embryonic American garage bands were cutting their chops on ‘Gloria’ by Them. In other words, rock music is a British creation that Americans subsequently copied. Bob Dylan named his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home in reference to the fact that British bands had shown Americans music from their own country that they didn’t know existed and now it was time for an American to take these influences back.

Black musicians were outcasts in their own country. They lived their lives on the sidelines instead of being treated like the musical innovators that they actually were. By claiming that rock music is authentic American music that only Americans are fit to play, David Thomas is reveling in unbearable ignorance. On the one hand, he casually appropriates the music of African-Americans and poor rural whites while on the other hand also claims ownership of this music on behalf of all Americans and disallows all non-Americans from participating. The actual music made by white people in the early 60s had almost no connection to the musical heritage America would soon discover. Thomas ignores the fact that the middle-classes scorned ‘race music’, ignores the political and cultural segregation that led to jazz and blues. He then claims that as a white middle-class male he has the right to pass judgment on non-American rock bands.

When reminded by Reynolds that there is really no such thing as American ‘blood’ and that America was and remains highly segregated Thomas makes perhaps his most startling claim of all. After Reynolds puts it to Thomas that America does not really have a ‘melting pot’, Thomas replies by saying:

"Yes, we do. Only recently, since people like Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders have taken over, has it been less successfully melted."

In his greatest feat of arrogance, Thomas ignores the economic and social damage wrought by slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and blames an African-American woman for making America a less integrated place! Only moronic middle-class thinking could leap to this kind of conclusion.

What proof does Thomas offer up of the connectedness of American music? Greil Marcus.

"Images are created – seminal things like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. That image has possessed writers endlessly from the moment it was heard. I've written probably a dozen songs based on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. Read Greil Marcus’s ‘Mystery Train’, it’s all about the passing on of communal images."

There you have it. Greil Marcus wrote about it in Mystery Train and it sure seems plausible so therefore it is undoubtedly historical fact. Marcus, ever determined to put a poetic, romantic spin on the music he writes about, has a habit of making dubious connections between songs that feel aesthetically pleasing but bear no resemblance to historical fact. Over-romanticising American history can lead a person to ignore what were very troubling realities. The 20s and 30s were not so much ‘Old Weird America’ but rather ‘Hellish Segregated Morally Repugnant Murderous Racist America’.

A black male living in the south in the 30s risked being lynched for even looking at a white woman in a way she or her husband found distasteful. Apparently, this was the ideal melting pot for America until Oprah Winfrey and the do-gooders came along. What David Thomas has done in this interview, and in his thinking, is to allow white, middle-class America to take ownership of images, music, and emotions that did not belong to them. Separated by race and class, the music of early 20th century America came out of poverty, out of prejudice, out of spirit-crushing realities faced on a day-to-day basis, realities that white middle-class Americans need never face.

Art belongs to no particular group or class, however, and the nature of culture means that Art becomes the property of all. Yet David Thomas, after appropriating music from out with his race and class, then condemns others for playing music that supposedly does not belong to them. I've read many interviews by musicians. Some show remarkable intelligence, some show a disappointing lack of wit. Never have I read an interview that has such ignorance, such stupidity, such thoughtless arrogance, as the one in Totally Wired with David Thomas. He insults the working-class by claiming they are all but incapable of making adventurous art (I’m sure Mark E. Smith would beg to differ), he insults African-Americans by appropriating their Art and claiming it for all Americans, he insults non-American rock bands, and he actually claims that an African-American woman is partly responsible for making America more segregated (this seems like a variation on the tired theme of ‘race problems would go away if we stopped talking about them’).

To be honest, I’d probably care more if Thomas weren't so irrelevant, if his ‘career’ didn't consist of two decent albums made decades ago. Nevertheless the interview contains enough moronic thinking, the kind that often passes for fact in America and elsewhere, that I feel it is my duty to bring others’ attention to it. The fantasy world that David Thomas inhabits reeks of privilege and conceit. Perhaps I expected a bit more intelligence, a bit more individuality, a bit more adventurousness to his thinking. Then again, he is a white middle-class American male. We can’t expect too much.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Album Review)

Perhaps the most infamous moment in the documentary Dont Look Back is when Donovan performs ‘To Sing For You’ for a twitching Bob Dylan and his entourage. During Donovan’s sweet and simple song Dylan can hardly contain his conceit, blurting out “Hey, that’s a good song, man”, before eventually launching into ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. The exchange highlighted Dylan’s maturity in comparison to Donovan’s wistful naivety, though to be fair to Donovan he was in fact, and remains, five years younger than Dylan. The songs seemed to exist in different worlds (though I do think the line “crying like a fire in the sun” has always struck me as something of a clunker), and the documentary has forever cemented Donovan’s reputation as pretender to Dylan’s throne, a mere boy whose art shrivels when placed next to the master’s creations. How ironic, then, that within four years Dylan would be struggling to write lyrics that came close to the quality of ‘To Sing For You’, and his fans and critics would go on to champion this struggle as some kind of artistic triumph.

We’ve all read too much about Dylan as it is. What nobody seems to mention, however, is that even before his legendary motorcycle crash, his artistry was in decline. Blonde On Blonde is without a doubt Dylan’s Sgt. Pepper: an overrated album that relies on a few heavy hitters but fails to meet the standards set by his previous releases. Take away ‘Visions Of Johanna’, ‘I Want You’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, and ‘4th Time Around’ and suddenly things look pretty bleak. Bland rewrites of earlier, better songs and functional blues workouts dominate the album. From a production and playing standpoint it sounds great, but the songs don’t match the sound. It’s around this time in Dylan’s life that facts become rather scarce.

As far as the music industry was concerned Dylan fell off the map for a while. He crashed his bike. He raised a family. He jammed with The Band. He goofed around. He finally returned in 1968 with John Wesley Harding, an almost perfect album filled with cryptic, Biblical ruminations. The last two songs, though, indicate that something happened during John Wesley Harding. Instead of the lyrical complexities and allusions of the previous 10 songs, closing numbers ‘Down Along The Cove’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’ sound light and carefree. They are also rather dire, from a lyrical perspective. Nothing too awful, just a lot of bland “moon in June” rhymes that indicate a lack of inspiration. I say something must have happened during the recording of the album because these last two songs were not anomalies but actually predict the Dylan of Nashville Skyline. It seems that by 1969 Bob Dylan had forgotten how to write Bob Dylan songs.

Nashville Skyline, as indicated, picks up where John Wesley Harding ended except Dylan can’t even produce 10 new songs. There’s a rerecording of an old number, a throwaway instrumental, and then eight actual songs. Here is a man who once sang “Darkness at the break of noon/Shadows even the silver spoon/The handmade blade, the child’s balloon/Eclipses both the sun and moon/To understand you know too soon/There is no sense in trying” except now he was singing things like “Peggy Day, stole my poor heart away/By golly, what more can I say/Love to spend the night with Peggy Day” and “Oh, the moon is shinin’ bright/Lighting everything in sight/But tonight no light will shine on me”. Critics scratched their heads and wondered if Dylan was making a political move by associating himself with white working-class music, and some have suggested that Dylan banged his head so hard in the motorcycle crash that he had to relearn how to write songs.

Whatever the reason, it’s apparent that Dylan was not the songwriter he once was. Despite this, Nashville Skyline has become a favourite album among many Dylan fans (with Blood On The Tracks being the most treasured). It appears to have functioned as some kind of Never Mind The Bollocks, discovered many years after the fact for white suburban American music fans who grew up on alternative music but were looking for somewhere else to go. After exploring Dylan’s ambitious and daunting earlier material, Nashville Skyline is something of a respite from greatness. Ultimately it makes for a pleasant listen, but the words lack wit or any kind of playfulness. Its popularity may rest on the fact that its easy platitudes seem within reach of the average, educated, American suburbanite who sees profundity in hackneyed observations and imagines that the mundanities Dylan sings about on Nashville Skyline represent some kind of simple truth. Never mind those brilliant lyrical displays of Highway 61 Revisited; give me the homespun crock of Nashville Skyline. I can sing like that. I can dress like that. I can be that. Yes, Nashville Skyline is Americana’s true beginning point. It just took a couple of decades before its impact began to be felt. One man’s inability to write as good as he once did sparked an entire movement for people who lacked the necessary ambition to create something groundbreaking.

Wait, this is supposed to be an album review, right? Excluding a couple of live tracks, a couple of Nashville Skyline outtakes, a leftover from The Basement Tapes, and a few extra curios, most of the material on Dylan’s new Bootleg Series collection stems from the sessions for Self Portrait and New Morning, the two albums which followed Nashville Skyline. At the time, Self Portrait was greeted with derision, as opposed to New Morning which was greeted with relief. Sure, New Morning wasn’t a classic, but it was better than Self Portrait. However, while New Morning remains relatively ignored to this day, Self Portrait has picked up a cult following, even though the initial reviews remain as true as ever. People love trash and culturally reviled items and as such Self Portrait has its champions.

The problem with Self Portrait is that it sounds like a mess. It sounds like it was thrown together with five minutes to spare. It also has almost no Bob Dylan songs on it, which makes the greatness of Another Self Portrait’s first disc all the more astounding. The slapdash of Self Portrait is gone and, instead, every song flows effortlessly into the next. The version of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ which opens the set sounds suitably enigmatic, the lyrics a vast improvement from Nashville Skyline. The first disc works because it presents the songs from Self Portrait and New Morning as if they were from one gigantic session, so Dylan originals brush up against his many cover versions. We get a heartbreaking “Spanish Is The Loving Tongue’, followed by a rendition of Tom Paxton’s ‘Annie’s Going To Sing Her Song’ where Dylan captures the mixture of sadness and laughter perfectly, and then we’re treated to ‘Time Passes Slowly’ with George Harrison on guitar and backing vocals which blows the original version away. Almost everything works, and one suspects that, if the first disc in this collection had been the follow-up to Nashville Skyline, then Dylan would have sailed into the 70s with his reputation intact.

Disc Two doesn’t work quite as well. It opens with a dreary, piano and violin reading of ‘If Not For You’, a song that sums up everything wrong with this period of Dylan. Many champion this song’s unsophisticated message as if it captures some simple, eternal truth about love that Dylan’s earlier work managed to miss. “If not for you/Babe I couldn’t find the door/Couldn’t even see the floor”. Now, I love my wife, but I feel confident that if we had never met I would still be able to locate doors and floors with ease. Earlier Dylan numbers such as ‘Love Minus Zero / No Limit’, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’, and ‘ Mama, You Been On My Mind’ all capture the complexities of love in a far more convincing manner than ‘If Not For You’. There are no simple truths to be found in this song, only simple lies and easy platitudes that roll off the tongue without a second thought. If Donovan had played this song to Dylan on that fateful night he would have been laughed out of the room. The song was later covered by George Harrison and within a few short years both Harrison and Dylan had gone through messy divorces. One has to assume that after the divorces they were able to leave rooms without too much trouble.

The second disc feels more akin to the original Self Portrait in that it feels disjointed and uneven. There’s a pointless alternate version of Nashville Skyline highlight ‘Country Pie’, the only song on said album which has any humour or joy in the lyrics. The versions of ‘Went To See The Gypsy’ and ‘Time Passes Slowly’ are inferior to the ones heard on the first disc, with the reading of ‘Time Passes Slowly’ from the second disc sounding like Joe Cocker’s Beatles cover ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. There are, however, still highlights to be found. ‘Copper Kettle’ without overdubs can stop you in your tracks, and ‘Sign On The Window’ with added strings stuns, even as it predicts the coming of Elton John. Despite its flaws, disc two is still better than the original Self Portrait. More care has been put into the track listing, and even the songs that don’t work at least sound like they all belong on the same album.

Another Self Portrait is better than it has any right to be. Dylan at this time was clearly in the midst of some kind of artistic crises. New Morning came out in 1970 and it would be 1974 before Dylan put out his next studio album, Planet Waves, and it was no classic either. Dylan was out of energy, out of inspiration, and out of ideas. He turned, as he often does, to traditional music to help him through this rough patch but Self Portrait sounded lazy and confused. Another Self Portrait corrects the past to a certain extent and allows a fair amount of enjoyment to be had from Dylan’s 1970 recording sessions. Yet if you come away from this release with a feeling that those years of ‘69 and ‘70 were actually golden years after all, then we have a problem.

The five albums Bob Dylan released from ‘63 to ‘65 represent the high point of his art. Given the complexity, the delivery, the wordplay, the hilarity, the agony, the sheer overflowing genius of these years, why would anyone pick something like Nashville Skyline as their favourite Bob Dylan album? Imagine, if you will, a world-famous chef known for her innovative creations. Her dishes have regularly turned the culinary world upside-down. Then, while depressed and uninspired, she hears word that she must prepare a large meal for some important people. Unable to think of anything, she knocks out a quick pasta dish with some plain pasta sauce. Nothing fancy. Great pasta, but ultimately it’s still just pasta. Imagine then if 40 years later people talked about that pasta meal like it was the highlight of her career, as if it were some kind of conscious choice, a statement about the nature of pasta and society. So it goes with these barren years for Dylan.

The recordings from Another Self Portrait are desperate, the work of a man not sure what to sing or how to sing it. That it often succeeds is a testament to Dylan’s survival instincts, not his genius . From day one Dylan has possessed the ability to stare down the world, to look it straight in the eye and talk complete bullshit. You shouldn’t steal melodies from old folk songs and new friends if you can’t walk down the street the next day with a mile-wide grin and a bullshit yarn to charm your victims. When Dylan roared, his genius was unquestioned. Since 1965 that roar has never been consistent. Sometimes it is barely a whimper. Yet when it does rise up you almost want to forgive him for all his missteps and failures. In 1969 that roar was receding, and Dylan was looking for a place to hide.

That some suburbanites and wannabe folkies have built a career on imitating genius in a fallow period says more about the aspirations of the average Americana dude than it does about Dylan himself. Dylan hid out till he was ready to stare down the world again, and it took a failing marriage to inspire his genius to come out of hiding. Another Self Portrait shows one of the places he hid. It can certainly be a great place to visit, but to wish to live there artistically would be a mistake. There are no simple truths here. There is just a millionaire recording artist with time on his hands, recording songs that he enjoys singing. If you view it as any more than that, then you’ve fallen for Dylan’s bullshit and the aura of greatness that surrounds him that demands we view his every move as some kind of clever ploy to fool the critics. It’s really just a man with nothing to say trying to make enough songs for an album. He was better than this before, and he was better than this afterwards, and that is the kind of simple truth that many Dylan fans have a hard time understanding.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Case For Scottish Independence

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be
filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.
And perhaps above all the droopy mantra of ‘it wizny me’ is
what they do not want.
Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are
picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been
almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or

Edwin Morgan “Open the Doors!”

A question mark hangs over the fate of Scotland. It stands on the brink of a decision that would have international repercussions. Should Scotland secede from the Union and become a completely independent country? The answer to that question is yes. A resounding yes. In order to provide a full answer as to why Scotland should be completely independent it will be necessary to start with a discussion detailing the main reasons put forward in support of Scotland remaining part of the Union, reasons that are often linked to ideas of identity, personality politics, and even a still simmering sectarianism. For those who are not fundamentally opposed to Scottish independence, the issue of whether Scotland generates enough tax revenue to survive as an independent nation continues to be a source of worry and may even prompt many to err on the side of caution and vote No. As will be shown, there is every reason to believe that Scotland could afford to survive as an independent nation. Indeed, not only survive but thrive. Scotland’s political and cultural landscape would be transformed by independence in ways that could only be positive. With that in mind, why do many people still oppose an independent Scotland?

Reason #1: I don’t like / trust Alex Salmond.

It is to be hoped that any decisions made on the future of Scotland will not be based on personality politics. If you vote Yes for Scottish independence, you are not voting for Alex Salmond or the SNP. You are placing your trust in the people of Scotland. It will not give Alex Salmond, or indeed anyone, a mandate to create a totalitarian state. It will give Scottish people complete democratic control over their own country. Nothing more, nothing less.

Reason #2: The independence movement is anachronistic and lives in a Braveheart/Brigadoon dreamland.

A certain mindset exists in Scotland called the ‘cultural cringe’. This mindset reels in embarrassment from any representations of Scottish culture that are particular to Scotland alone. Traditional Highland culture, singing in a Scottish accent, and having strong Scottish national civic pride are all things which are met with a cringe (though British nationalism is given approval). To the unfortunate souls who have such an outlook, Scottish independence is a dream from the past to be cast away while being part of the United Kingdom means modernity. These thinkers exist in a state of shame about Scotland’s history, as if Scotland were a peasant society saved by a benevolent England, and as such talk of independence is seen as embarrassing and nationalistic. Many Scots are ashamed of Scottish nationalism, little realising that their shame passively endorses British nationalism. Scottish civic nationalism is categorised as Braveheart nationalism in order to create a straw man to dismiss. To those who are ruled by the cultural cringe, Scots must accept their place in the UK without question. What they fail to realise is that it is their own mindset which is trapped in the past. It is the outlook of the unquestioning serf who worries that rocking the boat will upset the landowner. It is an outlook that rejects full modern democratic participation for Scottish voters. It believes modern British history is the only history Scots should read about. There is no actual substance to such an outlook and to dwell too long on such opinions would give them more credibility than they deserve.

Reason #3: I identify as British. / I identify as British and Scottish.

This is a more complex matter. To those who feel the country of Scotland is but an aspect of the United Kingdom, no different than Cornwall or Yorkshire, then voting No is a logical decision. However, some pertinent facts cannot be ignored. Scotland existed as a separate country from England before the Union and continues to have a different legal system, a different education system, different sporting leagues, and a different national religion from England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The same cannot be said for areas such as Cornwall. To deny the vast differences in status between Scotland and Cornwall is to blur the lines of debate to the point of incomprehensibility. It must be acknowledged that Scotland has a far, far greater claim to independence than Cornwall or Yorkshire.

Many Scottish people align themselves more with Britain due to a sense of Unionism imported from Northern Ireland. This Unionism identifies itself with devotion to the Crown, devotion to the armed forces of the United Kingdom, and more often than not vocal celebrations of military victories that took place in Ireland centuries before. Even though the Union Jack is waved in abundance during Unionist displays of devotion, nothing indicates a person’s Scottish origins on mainland Britain like singing “The Sash” or “Derry’s Walls”. English and Welsh Protestants couldn’t care less about the Boyne and attach no historical importance to it. Only in Scotland are such things sung about, in an attempt to pledge allegiance to a religion that has been dominant in the UK for centuries though few, if any, of those singing are religious in any sense. While this particular kind of Unionism is a minority, it is nevertheless angry and loud. It is also highly anachronistic, espousing a fierce loyalism and servitude to symbols of power and prestige while ignoring the many gains modern democracies have made. It insinuates that freedom is granted to those who swear allegiance, not something that is the natural birthright of anyone born in a liberal democracy. Any erosion of this form of identity will surely be of benefit to Scotland, no matter what its future.

In general, though, identifying with Britishness seems to rest on the idea that outside of the Union being Scottish will ultimately be meaningless. Everything from jobs to the basic ability to travel internationally will be whisked away if Scots are no longer British. This fantasy both understates what an independent Scotland would look like and overstates the clout of the United Kingdom in the 21st Century. When Ireland became an independent nation after waging a successful campaign to rid itself of British rule, its citizens did not become international pariahs even in the UK. Travel continued, and trade disputes were settled in a relatively short amount of time. The Irish could still travel to America, or indeed to anywhere they could afford. This is not to suggest that Scotland should duplicate the Irish economic strategy. It is merely pointing out that a country which fought its way out of the Union did not suffer any lasting diplomatic repercussions. A country which does so through democratic means, and also does so in a more integrated European and global economy, is hardly likely to be punished by the remaining countries of the United Kingdom or the rest of the world for that matter.

Scotland actually faces greater danger of international isolationism if it stays within the Union. This danger would materialise if the UK withdrew from the European Union. Polls show that the majority of Scots want to remain part of the EU, but the majority of English voters do not. The repercussions of withdrawing from the EU are enormous. Most UK business owners fear that trade could be damaged and want the UK to remain with the EU. The ability to travel freely, study, and work in other EU countries would be curtailed. Even the American government has publicly expressed concerns about the UK leaving the EU. While opponents of Scottish independence point to the dangers of seceding from the Union, they ignore the fact that a majority of English people voting to exit the EU would drag Scotland in the same direction. Anti-EU thinking in the UK thrives on anti-immigration hysteria and “Rule Britannia” nationalism with no thought to the economic repercussions, yet those who favour Scottish independence are accused of anti-English sentiment and putting nationalism ahead of economic reality. It seems that British nationalism is a worthy sentiment to base your vote on, but Scottish nationalism is small-minded, parochial and hateful, at least to many No voters. If faced with a choice, would you take self-chosen independence or Westminster imposed anti-EU isolationism? Both have economic risks, but only one would be the chosen will of the Scottish people.

If your sense of identity is completely tied in with the notion of being British, then you should vote No. Right now, however, British identity is swinging even further to the right, as the reverberations of unfettered free-market philosophies continue to provoke insecurity and wealth inequality, and the blame for all of Britain’s ills is laid at the door of immigrants and Europe rather than the collapse (and subsequent costly propping up) of free-market institutions. You might want to ask yourself if the British identity that you associate with is the free-market free-for-all, Union Jack-waving kind that seems to continuously re-emerge in England, or whether it is the independent, industrious, and socially conscious kind which is actually more in line with the values of Scottish civic nationalism (as opposed to ethnic nationalism). Modern Scotland has always been an outward looking country, and the majority of people in Scotland don’t share a lot of the anti-European positions currently popular in many parts of England. It would be a travesty if Scotland’s European politics were dictated by English voters, a sentiment which should be viewed as democratic not nationalistic.

There appear to be many who would perhaps vote Yes but who enjoy the safety net provided by the Union. Devolution is all well and good but best keep the Union just in case things go wrong. This is nothing but timidity and refuses to grant Scottish people full responsibility for their political decisions. Like the twenty-five year old who earns enough money but refuses to leave their parents’ home, many Scots want to remain within the Union out of a sense of safety and familiarity, denying Scotland the chance to achieve full democratic maturity. This same timidity is indicative of the dangerously paternalistic aspect of Great Britain which implies protection from the dangers of economic collapse and the ravages of the free-market when, in fact, Scotland has been the country which has suffered the most economically within the Union and has had to bear the brunt of decisions made without its best interests at heart by a political party that has little to no representation in Scotland.

Reason #4: Yes campaigners hate the English.

Scottish people who believe that democratic decisions for Scotland should not be made by those living in England are not anti-English. While there are a small minority of Yes campaigners who thrive on anti-English sentiment, it is not the driving force behind the Yes campaign. Most Yes campaigners just think that the people of Scotland are the best judges in regards to what is best for Scotland. It is Civic Nationalism, plain and simple. Whatever the result, Scotland will continue to have close economic and cultural ties with England. The countries have a shared history that independence cannot erase. Each country in the United Kingdom has a unique cultural history, but due to unbalanced demographics the country with the largest population has been allowed to dominate in democratic proceedings. The United Kingdom was a marriage of convenience and, at this point, it is hard to see what benefit it brings to England, nevermind Scotland. Scottish independence will be good for all the countries of the United Kingdom. It will bring much needed discussion about what the United Kingdom is, was, and what purpose it serves. The idea of what being English actually entails has often been covered over by the all powerful Union Jack. Scottish independence will bring a long called for reckoning to all residents of the British Isles.

Reason #5: Scotland cannot afford to be independent.

No single issue has caused more confusion and argument than the notion that Scotland cannot afford to be independent. It has industry, it has banking, it has technology, it has an educated workforce, it has a strong middle class, it has tourism, it has major airports, it has world-renowned Universities that conduct important scientific research, it has all the elements of a modern liberal nation but somehow it can’t afford to exist outwith the Union. Stories are thrown around declaring that business will suffer in an independent Scotland, unemployment will rise, taxes will rise, and Scotland will become bankrupt. At this point some historical perspective is necessary. In 1979 there was a referendum held in Scotland in regards to Home Rule (as distinct from Independence). Opponents claimed that Home Rule was dangerous as it would increase taxes, damage Scottish industry, and potentially cause more unemployment. Britain as a whole was suffering economically, and Home Rule was seen as a foolish and unnecessary side issue. In any event 51.6% of Scots who voted opted for Home Rule but the measure failed to go through as only 63.8% of the Scottish electorate showed up to vote. As such it failed to meet one of the prerequisites of the vote being approved, namely that those who voted for Home Rule had to constitute at least 40% of the Scottish voting population. The other major event of 1979 was the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. By the time Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990, Scottish industry had been decimated, unemployment had risen, and there had been riots due to the Poll Tax which, lest we forget, was introduced a year early in Scotland for no official reason. Many were left wondering how things could have been worse if Home Rule had been introduced in Scotland.

Everything that opponents to Home Rule said would happen if the measure passed happened anyway, yet those in government and the right-wing (Unionist) press believed the blame lay with Scottish people and not with the policies of Margaret Thatcher. The Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson described Scotland as a nation of government dependents who had no inclination towards hard work or entrepreneurialism. The Conservative populist newspaper The Sun ran with the headline “Will Ye Stop Your Snivelling, Jock?” in response to Lawson’s comments. Despite the fact that the decisions which led to massive unemployment in Scotland were made by a British political party with virtually no support in Scotland, it was apparently some inherent quality in the Scottish people which was the real reason for Scotland’s problems. This language of frustrated paternalism perfectly summed up the Conservative attitude towards Scotland. The Tories were the unloved rulers of a nation which confused them, blaming their lack of popularity on prickly Scottish people, not their own tendency to crush Trade Unionism and implement free-market principles in every area of British life no matter what the cost and no matter how many lives were destroyed as a result. Scotland came out on the other side of Thatcherism with a greater sense of identity and a greater sense of what it wasn’t, and what it wasn’t was a Conservative nation. Scotland has repeatedly rejected the British Conservative party, and Scotland’s increasing identification as a nation whose needs were different from the rest of the UK culminated in the historic 1997 referendum which led to the creation of the Scottish parliament.

With the Scottish Government a reality, the next question was whether Scotland should take the next step and become independent. An agreement was made to put the question to the Scottish people on Thursday the 18th of September 2014. As stated, the question of whether Scotland can afford to be independent is one which continues to rage. The debate hinges on one main aspect: does Scotland generate enough tax revenue?

Scottish people have been led to believe that, without English taxpayers, Scotland would collapse. For years it has been “common knowledge” that England subsidises Scotland. The main problem with this “common knowledge” is that it is not true. The vast majority of the United Kingdom’s enormous oil revenue comes from Scotland. The British Treasury refuses to include North Sea oil revenue in Scotland’s GDP or Scotland’s tax revenues, instead calculating it separately and only as British tax revenue. If tax revenues from Scotland’s oil are included in the official calculation, then Scotland would actually have paid more than its share in UK tax revenue over the years. Given that the Scottish population represents 8.4% of the entire UK population, Scotland’s tax bill per capita from 1980 to 2012 would have been approximately £1,203 billion. Scotland has actually paid approximately £1,425 billion, a total of £222 billion extra. Scotland has more than paid its way. Indeed, without revenue from North Sea oil, Britain’s economy under Thatcher would have completely collapsed. In the greatest of ironies, Scotland actually subsidised Thatcher’s United Kingdom, not the other way around. Arguments continue to be made that an independent Scotland would not necessarily have a right to North Sea oil revenue. A credible explanation has yet to be given as to why oil in Scotland’s international waters does not necessarily belong to Scotland. Imagine for a second that 90% of the UK’s oil fields were in English international waters. Does anyone think that an independent Scotland would have any claim to that oil revenue? Anyone attempting to argue such a thing would be laughed out of the room. It speaks volumes that even Scottish people think that there is a debate about which country would have a claim on North Sea oil.

Even when those in the No campaign admit that Scotland may have some kind of claim on North Sea oil, they then proceed to dismiss oil revenue as a viable source of income. Oil is running out so we should not consider it in any discussions about Scotland’s future. Why should oil revenue be discounted completely from an independent Scotland’s future GDP? Why is oil alone considered unreliable and therefore not to be counted on? Should we have a risk analysis of all businesses in Scotland and the UK, just to be sure? What products have a guaranteed future profit in Scotland, or the UK, or indeed anywhere? The UK government has yet to make any statements in regards to how the UK will survive without oil revenue, yet when the issue of Scottish independence comes up it suddenly becomes the main topic. Unionists consistently seek to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the Scottish population. Despite the fact that a Conservative government drew up a report in the ‘70s that outright stated how wealthy an independent Scotland would be and then made plans to discredit the SNP and the very notion of independence, and despite the fact that British politicians and newspapers created the myth of Scotland as a nation of scroungers, many in Scotland still fear we have more to lose by seceding from the Union. Scotland has given more than its fair share to the UK, and its reward has been a reputation for dependency and idleness that even some Scottish people still believe to be the truth. It seems pertinent to ask: how much more could Scotland lose?

When it comes to enterprise, Scotland is among the most prosperous areas of the UK. It has a lower unemployment rate than the UK average. Between 2007 and 2010 only two areas of Britain showed economic growth. London and Scotland. The slanderous labels attached to Scottish people seem to take on a more sinister air in this light. Ever since the McCrone report of 1974, every effort has been made to undermine Scottish confidence in independence. The truth is that no matter how the Scottish economy was doing it would be used to denounce the Yes campaign. If Scotland’s economy was suffering, then jobs would be important not independence. If Scotland’s economy was booming, then why risk harming something good? With that in mind, would Scottish independence harm business in Scotland? It’s hard to imagine how Independence could harm Scottish business in the long term. The transition period would undoubtedly be bumpy, but no country has ever become independent without bumps. In terms of business opinion on independence, articles have appeared that support both the Yes and No positions. Trying to paint an independent Scotland as some kind of wonderland is foolish. The Scottish government would have to make decisions in regards to what could be done to allow businesses to prosper. Those decisions would be made by elected officials who would directly represent the will of the Scottish people. Saying that business would suffer in an independent Scotland is tantamount to saying that Scotland is not fit to make its own decisions in regards to its own economy.

Another major topic of concern is the amount of money paid out in Scotland to welfare recipients. Statements have been issued by the No campaign declaring that oil and gas revenues will not cover the Scottish welfare bill. This seems a ludicrous statement considering that the majority of Scotland’s tax revenue does not come from oil or gas. Stating that oil and gas would help an independent Scotland does not mean it would be used to solve all of the nation’s problems. Scotland generates enough tax revenue to cover its welfare bill. Independence merely states that Scottish people should have the right to decide how that welfare is distributed.

How Scottish Independence would change politics in Scotland.

At this point, Scottish political culture has been deformed by the influence of English politics. Scottish Conservatism, something which many would think to be a strong voice given that modern Conservatism was founded on the writings of Adam Smith, is nonexistent. The British Conservative Party remains a minor voice in Scottish politics, having never recovered from the unpopularity of the policies of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s decision to introduce the Poll Tax a year early in Scotland solidified in the minds of many Scots how little she cared for the opinions of the Scottish voter. Using Scotland as a guinea pig for this reform represented a huge slap in the face and, given that her unfettered free-market ideas clashed dramatically with the strong Trade Union culture that existed in many areas of Scotland, the reputation of Conservatism north of the border has yet to be revived. Many Scots who clearly believe in the values espoused by Adam Smith have turned away from the Conservative Party of the UK because of the way Thatcher used the power of government to ride roughshod over the will of the Scottish people. To them it didn’t look like small government; it looked like an almighty government flexing its muscles. Freed from the stigma of the UK Conservative Party, Scottish Conservatism could finally emerge as an active voice in Scottish politics.

The Labour Party was all but brought into existence by Scot Keir Hardie. The labour movement in general has deep roots in Scotland given how many heavy industry jobs there were north of the border after the industrial revolution took off. Unfortunately New Labour’s abandonment of left-wing politics under Tony Blair means that no authentic left-wing voice exists in Scotland under the umbrella of the Labour Party. As with the Conservative Party, the voice of the Labour Party in Scotland has been deformed by the demands of the English voter. While Scotland moved away from Conservatism in the ‘80s, Labour policies became almost identical to those of the British Conservative Party, culminating in the New Labour of the ‘90s. Scotland rejected the Tories only to have them return in the form of Tony Blair’s Labour government. Many Scots remain loyal to Labour given that a Conservative vote is out of the question, and Labour desperately wants to hold on to these voters. Labour has its eye on Downing Street, not on the needs of the Scottish people.

Thanks to the nature of UK politics, Scotland has been stripped of authentic, mainstream, populist left-wing and right-wing voices. In order to become more dynamic, Scottish political culture must outgrow the restrictive and stifling atmosphere of UK politics. Only an independent Scotland would allow for that growth. The September 2014 vote is the most important event in Scottish politics for centuries, for the simple reason that something real and tangible is at stake. In an independent Scotland there would not be watered-down tactical votes that keep one eye on the UK parliament. Voting would have more of a direct influence on everyday lives. Despite the fears of the Labour party, every UK election result since 1945 would have essentially been the same had votes from Scotland not been counted. This fact gives an indication of how much influence the Scottish voter has on UK politics and how little is at stake for UK political parties if Scottish needs are ignored.

Why you should vote Yes in the upcoming referendum.

For years Scotland has been dragged along by a one-size-fits-all approach to governing the UK. Scotland’s contributions to UK life have been made invisible by a philosophy that seeks to quell the voices that ask for independence by slandering Scotland and the Scottish people. The truth is, Scotland will one day be an independent country. It may not come with the 2014 referendum, but it will happen. This is because the Scottish Parliament has reminded Scotland what participatory democracy really looks like. Government seems more tangible and less cut off. There is no going back on devolution, and that means independence will one day be a reality. Labour and others have sought to win favour with Scottish voters and divert attention away from independence by indicating a preference for Devo Max. Devo Max would transfer to the Scottish Parliament the power to raise taxes, control welfare spending, control pensions, and much more. It would be independence in all but name. Polls show the majority of Scots want Devo Max but many are still unsure about independence. The desire for Devo Max shows the positive effect of the Scottish Parliament, but what will happen when the Scottish Parliament holds all the power? Should there be no Scottish MPs in Westminster? What will Unionists offer Scottish voters if another referendum happens and Devo Max is already in place? While it is understandable that many Scottish voters want to take things one step at a time, it must be seen that devolution has started a chain of events that must lead to independence. No country has ever demanded less participation in the democratic process. Once Scottish voters see that they are perfectly capable of choosing their own government and making democratic decisions for themselves without the safety net of the Union, then the breaking up of the United Kingdom will become inevitable.

Supporters of the current political situation in Scotland tend to emphasise the dire consequences of independence (“there’s no going back once independence happens and then what are we going to do if it all goes wrong?”). Fearmongering must remain at the heart of the Better Together campaign because there is no positive way of telling people that a remote and largely unresponsive UK government is a better form of democracy. Labour has done most of the dirty work for Better Together as too much Conservative involvement could actually help the Yes campaign (though Conservative multi-millionaire and oil trader Ian Taylor has contributed heavily to Better Together). It speaks volumes that one of the dominant UK political parties has no real credibility in Scotland. Outside of independence, Scotland is stuck in a repeating pattern of trusting Labour (who are not officially opposed to Devo Max but who are determined to retain the Union) or rejecting both major UK political parties and existing as an anomaly within the UK (not including Northern Ireland whose politics are fueled by issues completely unrelated to the mainland UK).

The UK parliament is essentially a reflection of choices made by English voters. Each time Scottish voters have complained about the nature of the UK parliament, or made noises about independence, the myth of subsidised Scotland is wheeled out. Even if this myth were true, why would anyone in Scotland want this situation to continue? Why shouldn’t Scottish voters be given the opportunity to balance their own budget? While some discussion has centred around how many would leave Scotland if the country voted Yes, less consideration has been given to the idea that many people would move to Scotland in an attempt to escape the neoliberal agenda currently dominating British political culture.

People in Scotland should vote yes because it is the right thing to do. Scotland has been pulled along by English political opinion for too long. An independent Scotland will give its people the chance to deal with issues in Scotland, the chance to decide how Scottish money should be spent, the chance to create a real political culture free from apathy and disconnect. That is not a foolish pipe dream, unless you consider democracy a foolish pipe dream. The fact that there may be some issues if Scotland chooses independence, issues that would have to be worked out after the fact as there could be no guarantees, is no reason to stick with the current situation. A dysfunctional couple who decides to stay together because neither really knows how they would split the house or time with the kids would correctly be deemed foolish. Scotland can afford independence so the only question that remains to be answered now is whether Scotland wants independence. A No vote is a vote bereft of solutions. It merely says “better the devil you know”. A Yes vote is a bold leap into true modernity for Scotland, the final act in the rebirth of a country that almost believed the mythologies and lies created to keep it in its place. Almost, but not quite.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lamentations of the Oppressor

I write this essay not because I wish to become the straight white male voice which dominates the conversation. I write this essay in response to the straight white male voices which dominate the conversation. The facts that I put across are not news to black people, to gay people, to women. They live these facts each day. Western society was created as the plaything for straight white males. It is their wonderland. Every goal that Western society achieves reflects on the glory of straight white males. Every misstep is merely the folly which all societies are prone to. Straight white males wake up every day knowing they do not need to fight for their place in society, do not need to claw their way into the picture, do not need to plead for their basic humanity to be recognised. Their sex lives can never be compared to the person who takes pleasure in penetrating animals. Their genes are not the subject of scrutiny in regards to criminality or laziness. Their clothing is not inspected for signs of sluttiness, for signs of vanity, for signs of a little too much self-regard (the straight white male will soon take care of that). Their intelligence will not be remarked upon with a certain surprise. ‘One of the girls’ will never be seen as a compliment. Their lifestyles will not be the subject of endless, humourless ‘jokes’. The world is theirs.

What happens though, when a small non-straight non- white non-male voice rises up and demands respect, demands a small piece of dignity? The straight white male cries foul, tells them that we all must deal with life’s troubles. Whenever straight white males do not get to decide what is discussed, and how it is discussed, then suddenly they are the victim of an almost unbearable violation. Fascism has descended. A crime against the very fabric of the universe has taken place. Suddenly they will become the noble warrior for truth and justice. The small, almost imperceptible voice that demands a place at the table must be silenced. Straight white men earned their place at the table. What has this small, pathetic, whiny voice of discontent ever done? Black people, you should be glad your ancestors were taken from Africa. Just look at the opportunities you have. Gay people, just be glad you aren’t being tortured and killed for your sexual orientation. Women, what has feminism really brought you? Wouldn’t you be better off back in the kitchen, leaving the man in charge?

The straight white male struts and frets. Suddenly he steps on a nail. “See, I hurt too! Aren’t we all human after all? My pain is at least equal to yours!”. His failure to recognise the superior hand he was dealt renders him incapable of recognising other pains, other problems. “Unless I recognise the pain you feel as akin to mine, it is a lesser pain. The pain of one who has not outgrown race, gender, and sexuality as I have”. Why do gay people ‘come out’? The straight white male thinks sexuality is unimportant, because society never negates his. The straight white male thinks we are all part of ‘the human race’ because his whiteness is the norm to which other races must strive. The straight white male is confused by women. They demand equality, but wear make-up! If women refuse to meet societal norms of attractiveness, then they are ignored. If they strive to meet societal norms they are hypocrites. Women are bitches if disliked, but have ‘balls’ if they are admired.

Then we have the straight white male right-wing Christian. For centuries Christianity has dominated the lives of millions of people. It has carried out such barbarities as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Witch Trials, burning of heretics, as well as the persecution of Jews, the persecution of women, the persecution of homosexuals, and the persecution of scientists. Christianity was the moral force behind the British Empire, the Atlantic slave trade, Manifest Destiny, the slaughter of Native Americans, the persecution of African-Americans that included beatings, lynching, the black codes, Jim Crow, and segregation. The Vatican continues to cover up child abuse that occurs on such scales as to be almost unimaginable. The Catholic Church also helped spread HIV in Africa by forbidding followers from using condoms. Truly there is not enough room to document all the murder, torture, censorship, and general brutality carried out by the Christian religion. Up until even the most recent times Christian thinking had the power to silence, to ruin careers, to punish those who questioned. Christian groups are often the most powerful forces in the rejection of evolution and the promotion of Creationism. They pressure for books to be banned, for textbooks to be altered, for children to be taught outright lies. Christian churches, indeed any religious institutions, do not pay taxes.

What happens if you raise your voice against such a powerful force? You are labelled intolerant. Complaints will be made about the restrictive nature of political correctness, even though up until recently it was Christian morality which controlled and restricted discourse. When it comes to the teaching of scientific knowledge Christianity still restricts, except now it takes on the role of the bullied underdog. Christianity demands equality in the classroom which means the pathetic pseudo-intellectual drivel that is Creationism must be given equal footing with evolution, a scientific fact which has such overwhelming evidence to support its claims that nobody outside of those blinded by religious faith has any reason to doubt it. Among religious scholars it is stated as an incontrovertible fact that a historical personage by the name of Jesus actually existed. The evidence for this fact consists of zero first-hand accounts yet we are still told that the evidence is unarguable and only hard-line atheists would be foolish enough to deny it. Bring up the staggering amounts of evidence for evolution and/or climate change however and suddenly the right-wing Christian becomes a free-thinking skeptic who refuses to take peer-reviewed scientific papers seriously. Whispers will be made about liberal conspiracies. Textbooks mentioning evolution and climate change will be censored. The right-wing Christian states that unless they are controlling the narrative they are being repressed, suppressed, censored, and subjugated. Unless they can, without controversy, place their Christian symbols wherever they wish, whenever they wish, then there is a war taking place against freedom itself. Unless they can verbally (and at times legally) persecute homosexuals then not only is their liberty at stake, the liberty of all is at stake.

The libertarian movement in America is dominated by straight white males. They are more often than not right-wing Christians also. Their philosophy states that in a society designed to reward the straight white Christian right-wing male the only thing government should do is leave people alone. The police must be used to enforce property rights. Wars must be fought continuously to protect overseas business interests. Politicians must work to open up foreign markets for Western businesses. The government must hand out billions of dollars in tax breaks while also propping up the free market. Society must exist to reward, protect, and foster the rich ruling class, but the poor and middle class must be stripped of government protection in order to become more free. Trickle-down economic philosophy has been shown time and again to not work, to create poverty, and to increase wealth inequality yet the straight white right-wing male acts as if the universe is a faultless karmic machine which deals out good and bad perfectly according to how hard we all work. In the end, the money you take is equal to the money you make. Right-wing economic theory is nothing but warmed over hippie-esque karmic mysticism with money replacing love. Everything happens for a reason. Let’s use this opportunity to learn, regroup, and make some more money. If we work hard enough, we’ll succeed. What you give is what you get.

In the world of the straight white right-wing Christian male, race, gender, and sexuality mean nothing. They are the hobgoblins of small minds. Despite racism being invented as a term to describe the white European attitude toward non-white people, we must now use it as a universal term which applies to all races. It cannot be stated enough that non-white people, those whose idea of race was forged in the fires of white supremacy, can also be racist. Even though sexism was originally used to describe the behaviour of men towards women, it must now be used as a universal term. Even though women have been controlled, bought, sold, mutilated, burned, and slandered for centuries, please remember that women can be sexist too!

The lesson is clear. The straight white male must control at all times or the straight white male will feel oppressed. The right-wing Christian must dominate or liberty itself will be under attack. Only when society protects, fosters, and accepts the morals of the straight white right-wing Christian male are we all free. All other approaches must be set aside or a wave of anarchy will destroy the very foundations of society. America will be under attack. Look for these signs whenever the values of those who have dominated Western society for centuries are challenged. They are a shiver rattling down the spineless. They are the complaints of the King who must concede some power to an emerging parliament. They are the wails of the landlord who is forced by government ordinances to upgrade his slums. They are the protestations of the sweatshop owner who discovers he can no longer beat his 12 year old employees when they desire a toilet break. They are the lamentations of the all powerful when they sense they cannot dominate everything at all times. When the privileges of the oppressor are challenged they will suddenly become the oppressed and appeal to the very rights that up until recently they would deny to all but the chosen few. With that in mind, treat these lamentations with the respect they deserve.